Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I echo the comments made by my colleague, Deputy Wallace, on defence matters. It is heartening to know that in his speech earlier the Taoiseach committed fully to the Paris climate change agreement and said that the 27 member states would stand together very firmly on that. I acknowledge his comments on migration and digital Europe. They are welcome but he needs to indicate clearly whether Ireland is living up to its commitments on migration.
One of the issues mentioned by the Taoiseach on which I have concerns is the European semester, particularly in regard to fiscal policy. Almost all the discussions we had at meetings of the budgetary oversight committee have revolved around the fiscal rules and looking back at those. As I mentioned a number of times at meetings of the committee, we have still amassed a huge national debt, largely imposed on us by the European Commission and the major European powers, especially Germany. This makes it so difficult for us to begin to rebuild our infrastructure, which has been allowed to fall into decay so badly over recent years. We expect the Taoiseach and new Minister to put up a strong fight for fiscal leeway for Ireland in terms of current spending in certain areas, such as disability, as I mentioned during Leaders’ Questions this morning, and also in general terms to give us the kind of elbow room we need, particularly given that we are the people most affected by Brexit.
From the time of the result of the UK Brexit referendum result, I have been calling for a Brexit Minister. That the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has effectively become the Brexit Department is welcome. However I was disappointed yesterday to note that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, said there was no question but that Ireland was a priority on the first day of the talks with Mr. Michel Barnier and the British delegation. I am looking at a picture of the Minister with Michel Barnier in which he is being congratulated. The Minister stressed that Ireland wants to see a future relationship that is as close as possible between the EU and the UK but the account of the first day of talks in many of our newspapers today is very disheartening and disappointing. The Guardian, for example, reports that the hopes we all had for swift progress on addressing any possibility of a border being brought back in this country are dashed already. Mr. Barnier and the UK Secretary of State, Minister, Mr. Davis, MP, reported afterwards that Ireland would no longer be in the first wave of the working groups so we do not seem to be a priority in the negotiations themselves. We are to be subject to a separate, slower dialogue. The reason for this, given by Mr. Davis, is that resolving the common travel area and the Irish Border issue is such a difficult issue. However, many people feel, on considering the cases of Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, with its various borders, that there does not seem to have been the same level of difficulty in respect of them. Some people were categorising the negotiations yesterday as a 3:0 result, with the European Union being 3 and the UK being 0 in that the latter lost all its main negotiating demands. In fact, we seem to have had a 1:0 result against us. It is good that we have a Brexit Department at long last and that the Minister of State is present but we need to refocus to ensure we are a high priority from the outset.